A variety of options gives boost to remote work

Proponents expect security and retention issues to raise distributed work’s profile
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/18/2006

Fifteen or so years after employers started tentatively to let people work from home, the bulk of remote work arrangements still take the form of informal telework in which people work from home a day here or a day there.

But a convergence of factors may change all that, giving lift to a concept known as distributed work. Distributed work programs are a combination of remote work arrangements that give employees the option of working from head office one day, a satellite office the next or a home office yet another day.

Bob Fortier, president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Telework Association, points to a home break-in this spring in the state of Maryland as an example of a factor that could drive the development of formalized distributed work. The burglars made off with a laptop belonging to a United States Department of Veteran Affairs data analyst, along with personal information of about 26.5 million veterans and their spouses.

“As a result of that case, the employee got fired and the manager got fired,” said Fortier. “That’s because the employee didn’t have the authority to telework and the manager didn’t follow any of the security protocols.”

The incident, said Fortier, should serve as a wake-up call for employers that have been reluctant to take control of the issue. Others will cite any number of factors including post-Sept. 11 concerns about business continuity and the need to have workers fanned out away from corporate central, financial pressures to cut down on office space and commuting costs in fuel and time.

And not least is a need to retain skilled employees, who are increasingly asking for work flexibility.

“A key driver for any company is retention and recruiting of staff,” said George Horhota, co-founder and executive vice-president of SuiteWorks, a Barrie, Ont.-based provider of satellite office space.

“The demographic skills crunch is coming. More employees, particularly the baby boomers, are interested in flexible work arrangements but, ironically, so are generations X and Y. So you have three generations right now, for different reasons, looking for flexible work arrangements,” said Horhota. “Employees love distributed work. It empowers them to have a choice as to where they work best today.”

The concept has a distinct advantage over the exclusive work-from-home arrangements, said Horhota, because it gives employees options and employers a potential for saving on real estate.

The impact of distributed work on retention is difficult to quantify. But it’s telling that the biggest centre of growth for it in Canada is Calgary, where hiring has reached frenetic proportions, he said.

Case study: T4G

Horhota may peg real estate savings as the chief reason distributed work is an appealing strategy to employers. But at T4G, a Toronto-based information technology firm specializing in web and software development, there has been no attempt to cut down on office space.

Every one of the 200 or so employees at T4G has a designated desk at one of the company’s offices in Toronto, Saint John, N.B., Halifax or Vancouver.

Nevertheless, said the company’s vice-president of strategy Paul Barter, employees spend less than half of their time in the office. They’re either working from home or at a client site.

People are used to working on virtual teams at T4G, so it makes little difference where they are. The company’s Microsoft Outlook is programmed to integrate both voicemail and e-mail. Every time someone leaves a phone message, an alert appears in Outlook and the employee can retrieve the message via e-mail. And, conversely, the employee can use the telephone to have e-mail read to him. In place of office chatter, employees use instant messaging to bounce ideas off each other. The company pays for everyone’s laptop and high-speed Internet connection at home.

“We believe that work is an activity and not a location. As long as they get a job done, we don’t care where they are,” said Barter.

The same mindset applies to the company’s flexible hour policy.

“As long as they can keep the customer happy, we really don’t care whether they start at 7 a.m. or 10 a.m. or whether they’re in our office or at the customer office or at their home,” said Barter.

The key to ensuring productivity does not fall off is to manage people by very specific metrics, such as expectations on deliverables and time frames relative to deliverables, he said. Financial results are reported every week so the executive team can find out quickly if any customer issues come up.

Barter said the prime benefit of such a program has been the retention of people.

“From an HR perspective, we’re in a market that was very tight in 1999-2000. And then there was too much capacity and the market slackened. And now it’s tight again. The type of people we hire really do have a lot of options. And they’re mature, self-managed individuals, working on individual projects,” he said. That makes it easy to manage them remotely.

On top of low employee turnover, Barter said the company has doubled in size in the last two years.

“The market certainly hasn’t grown at that level,” he said. “We’re outgrowing the market. And one reason for that is we can attract and retain employees when our major competitors have a more difficult time in attracting and retaining employees.”

Case study: Bell Canada

Whether on contract or working full time, all employees at Bell are eligible to take part in the company’s distributed work program. All that’s required is for the manager and the employee to agree the work allows for it and to sign an agreement.

The program, which has been around since 1992, has three elements. The full-time telework element allows employees to work 100 per cent of the time from home, with the company paying for the entire cost of home equipment. For those signed up for partial telework, the company pays for the computer and VPN access but not high-speed Internet.

The third option was introduced only last year, and that’s to work a few days a week at one of Bell’s six satellite offices in Quebec and Ontario. Branded as flexSpace, this option allows people to cut down on commuting time or to take advantage of telework benefits even if they don’t have the right set-up at home, said Jean-Marc Ciot, senior consultant of information systems and information technology at Bell.

So far, out of an employee population of 45,000, 2,000 have signed up for full-time telework and 18,000 to 19,000 people are doing partial telework. The number of flexSpace participants is not yet available, but there are 40 spaces at each of the six sites and they’re almost fully used.

The objective is to give flexibility to employees and offer them a different way to work, Ciot said, particularly mothers with young children who might want to spend more time at home for a couple of years.

To make sure participants stay productive, the company offers training to both the full-time teleworker and to the employee’s manager. The latter might cover such issues as the need for constant communication or the need to ensure the full-time teleworker does not feel excluded.

Ciot said he rarely hears of communication or management issues from people working remotely.

“A person doing telework needs to be reachable every time, even more so than if they’re in the office. If you work in the office these days, you’ll find people not talking to their bosses everyday. Often at Bell, a person might be working in Quebec and reporting to a boss in Toronto. It’s not very different.”

What it is

A few facts about distributed work

•Definition: A combination of remote work options, including work from home, work from a satellite office or work from the corporate office. Distributed work programs often require employees to give up a dedicated office space.

•First introduced at IBM seven years ago under the name “eMobility,” distributed work programs have been adopted by Sun Microsystems (known as “iWork”), Bell (“flexSpace”), Boeing (“Virtual Office”), Bank of America and Proctor and Gamble.

•At IBM, 31 per cent of the workforce has given up assigned work stations in exchange for participation in the company’s distributed work program. IBM operates 13 “mobility centres” in Canada. Another centre for IBM is run by SuiteWorks, a third-party provider of office real estate. With 5,000 employees participating in Canada, the company saves $20 million a year and nearly $400 million a year globally, mostly in real estate costs.

•Sun Microsystems has 42 per cent of employees participating in its program, with real estate savings reaching $300 million in the last four years.

Source: George Horhota, SuiteWorks

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